Workiness and the Ph.D.

November 13th, 2007

The antidote to workiness could be called the DO Mechanism, which operates off simple principles:

  • Not abstract.
  • Not later.
  • DO it now.

This is how a good farmer works, or a good anybody who want to have a job DONE. Especially if you’re a knowledge worker, it’s easy to play pattycake with your tasks — which will probably be fairly abstract no matter what you do with them — and tell yourself that you’re really working. But unless you’re producing RESULTS, you’re not actually working, you’re just busy. Yes, you may be moving. You may even be sweating the details or having a good time doing it, but real work is about nailing down PROGRESS, not just BUSY-ness. Workiness settles for busy-ness, but tries to call it real work.

Pursuing a Ph.D. offers many enabling mechanisms for delay and busy-ness, so much so that it’s easy to achieve NO results in a day or a month or even a year of Ph.D. workiness. This is especially so because the hard parts of Ph.D. work are self-directed. Yes, some people bottom out in the initial coursework phase of graduate school, but in my experience this usually means that they either really don’t want to be doing what they’re doing — their hearts aren’t in it — or else they’re simply not cut out for the program they’re in. This is the sort of thing that leads self-aware people to change topics, change advisers, change schools, or just leave the academy with a real sense of finality.

But in my experience this is a small fraction of the grad-student population. You’re much likelier to find folks who bottom out after finishing coursework (but before passing qualifying exams) or after finishing their exams (but before writing the dissertation). That’s because the exam and dissertation steps require enormous self-direction, unless you happen to have an adviser who shepherds you like a border collie.

Self-direction in these phases may be especially hard for smarter students, for a couple of reasons. First, they’ve reached the advanced stages of the Ph.D. only by being so good for so long at fulfilling school assignments handed to them by others. In fact, many people pursue graduate school precisely because they’re so good at school — the milieu itself — rather than because they have an extra-special love for Transcendental poetry or the processes of histamine release. Second, smarter students, if their ambition is pegged higher than their DO Mechanism, will try to undertake projects that are too sweeping for their capabilities. From the vantage of having finished years of graduate coursework, it’s easy to imagine a great research project that will really shake your field . . . and take 15 years to do well. That’s a problem, given that you need to finish the post-coursework part of the Ph.D. in something like five years.*

Writing a dissertation (and, to a lesser degree, passing qualifying exams) requires you to take fairly intangible goals — building a body of knowledge, contributing new ideas to your field — and turn them into a (quite long) series of (daily, possibly boring or painful) concrete tasks. That’s hard to do. The temptation, instead, is to keeping thinking ABOUT your intellectual project, to keep reading ABOUT it and talking ABOUT it, instead of working THROUGH your project. The distinction may not sound like much, but it makes all the difference in the world. For as long as you stay “meta” with your topic, so that you’re off to one side of it,** you don’t achieve real clarity on it, and you don’t put your guts into it. This is a tempting state in which to abide, for thinky grad students who are prone to over-abstraction.

Clarity is achieved by DOING things, which is why it’s so important to have a DO Mechanism that’s in top working order. This applies even when your particular “doing” = “thinking.” But you can’t succumb to the temptation of thinking ABOUT your intellectual work; you have to DO the thinking that IS your intellectual work. That means you have to give the best part of your mind — your intellect AND your emotions — to it, which is a tough nut to crack, especially when you’re taking the new and bold step of contributing something new to the edifice of history or chemistry or music theory or whatever it is that you’re studying. Again, you have to get over your smarty-pants track record, in which you’ve aced so many tests and assignments, to discover NEW things for which no one else can tell you the right answers. That’s a challenge not just to your thinking mind, but to your emotional toughness. And it’s absolutely required if you want to move from workiness to work in the academic setting.

It doesn’t help that many graduate programs are social hothouses. My own department is so convivial that you might be tempted never to move on from it. It’s the easiest thing in the world to get together with your advisor for coffee, or go out with your friends for drinks. You talk about the department. You talk about intellectual life. Maybe you talk about a fellowship you’re applying for, or touch lightly on a project you’re doing. Once in a while, you really get into a long smoker of a conversation in which you unpack some key piece of intellectual baggage. But mostly that work is done out on your own private island. The key is to get yourself to DO the work when you’re out there.


Some helpful resources for combatting workiness when you’re getting your Ph.D.:


* Not that this stops some people. I haven’t seen the latest figures, but traditionally the average time to earn a history Ph.D. in the U.S. is something around eight years from the time of entering graduate school.

** The other day I quoted Arthur Miller in this vein: “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He has to be endangered by it. His own attitudes have to be tested in it. The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”

3 Responses to “Workiness and the Ph.D.”

  1. Elaine W Krause Says:

    Just saw this today, and noticed first the title. From a distance, wearing my old glasses, I thought it said WONKINESS and the Ph.D. Which might also apply. ;-)

    I cannot believe how many of our typical week’s activities so easily decelerate into busyness, or workiness. Yet another new concept to contemplate, thanks to you! And, clearly, applies to tons of other stuff in addition to doctoral work. Social media marketing comes to mind — how often are we focused on a specific goal, rather than the sheer enjoyment of (or obsession with) the journey?

  2. Tim Walker Says:

    Good thoughts, Elaine. Soooooo important to focus on real movement rather than just random activity.

  3. On “Workiness” | Dacia Takes Note Says:

    […] about my project, rather than within it. I found this 4-year old post on Tim Walker’s blog, What I’ve Learned So Far that addresses this very problem. Walker calls it “workiness”: Writing a dissertation […]

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